This blog follows the daily bible readings of the Catholic Church
Reading 1, Acts 1:1-11
1 In my earlier work, Theophilus, I dealt with everything Jesus had done and taught from the beginning 2 until the day he gave his instructions to the apostles he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven. 3 He had shown himself alive to them after his Passion by many demonstrations: for forty days he had continued to appear to them and tell them about the kingdom of God. 4 While at table with them, he had told them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for what the Father had promised.
‘It is’, he had said, ‘what you have heard me speak about: 5 John baptised with water but, not many days from now, you are going to be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’
6 Now having met together, they asked him, ‘Lord, has the time come for you to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
7 He replied, ‘It is not for you to know times or dates that the Father has decided by his own authority, 8 but you will receive the power of the Holy Spirit which will come on you, and then you will be my witnesses not only in Jerusalem but throughout Judaea and Samaria, and indeed to earth’s remotest end.’
9 As he said this he was lifted up while they looked on, and a cloud took him from their sight. 10 They were still staring into the sky as he went, when suddenly two men in white were standing beside them, 11 and they said, ‘Why are you Galileans standing here looking into the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way as you have seen him go to heaven.’
17 May the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and perception of what is revealed, to bring you to full knowledge of him. 18 May he enlighten the eyes of your mind so that you can see what hope his call holds for you, how rich is the glory of the heritage he offers among his holy people, 19 and how extraordinarily great is the power that he has exercised for us believers; this accords with the strength of his power 20 at work in Christ, the power which he exercised in raising him from the dead and enthroning him at his right hand, in heaven, 21 far above every principality, ruling force, power or sovereignty, or any other name that can be named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22 He has put all things under his feet, and made him, as he is above all things, the head of the Church; 23 which is his Body, the fullness of him who fills the whole creation.
These readings are for the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord, which celebrates the doctrine that Jesus has been “Raised” to rule with God. Only Luke has a narrative basis for this doctrine, which is otherwise asserted as a conviction rather than a history. For us there is an unavoidable daftness in the idea of a body going upwards to God, as modern cosmology has dissolved any notion of a heaven up there. The doctrine is however so important to Christian faith, that we must be firm in describing Luke’s story as legendary, while exploring the meaning of the doctrine itself.
Jesus, the crucified and dead human being, has been given life and supreme authority by God: he is revealed as sharing the nature of God.
The cosmology of the Roman empire is not irrelevant. There was a generally accepted belief that the earth was at centre of cosmic spheres in which the celestial bodies moved, and with their attendant powers, dominated life on earth. Speculation about the nature of these powers was common, especially in religious circles. When Paul refers to “spiritual wickedness in the high places” he is talking about such powers, which for him would have included what we would call the prevailing cultural and political forces of his time.
From the second and third centuries we have evidence of religious sects offering a salvation which gave the soul the key to passing through such spheres after death, to reach the true God.
The doctrine of the ascension is that the utterly insignificant, excluded and cast out Galilean prophet has been given authority over all these powers; and that those who follow his way, however oppressed or ill-treated, share in that authority even in this world, and can trust in its protection in the world to come. True power comes not from cultural pre-eminence or the barrel of a gun, but from identification with the crucified Jesus, and the least important of his brothers and sisters.
This is the same gospel as we find n the Book of Revelation which has the wonderful phrase, “The Lamb in the heart of the Throne.”
Both Luke and the author of the Letter to Ephesians realised that the doctrine had political implications. Luke has God’s messenger tell the apostles to cease contemplating the fact of the ascension, and to get on with the work of building the church till Jesus comes back. In Ephesians the author spells it out that Jesus is Lord of the powers of the age, and that his church on earth is place where his rule is made real. A united community of all races is the body in which the fullness of God will be known.
The church must be both completely biased, that is identified with the poor and the excluded, and at the same time, completely unbiased, that is, catholic, open to the whole inhabited world. Only in this way can it honour the ascended Jesus